Just when you were getting used to eating only low-fat or nonfat cheese, milk, and yogurt, along comes another study saying, “Hey, dairy’s not so bad for your heart after all.”
In fact, new research suggests that in moderation, dairy products might actually lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
But before you stock up on gallons of creamy whole milk and giant wheels of cheddar, some experts caution that even with this new study, dairy research remains as mixed as a high-fat milkshake.
What did the study find?
The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, published September 11 in The Lancet, spanned 21 countries and involved more than 135,000 people. Researchers followed people for about nine years.
They found that people who consumed more than two servings a day of milk, cheese, or yogurt had lower rates of cardiovascular disease and death, compared with those who ate less.
This was true even for people who ate only whole-fat dairy.
The researchers write that eating dairy products “should not be discouraged and perhaps should even be encouraged in low-income and middle-income countries where dairy consumption is low.”
People in those countries eat less dairy than in North America and Europe, they write.
Study author Mahshid Dehghan, PhD, a researcher at Population Health Research Institute in Canada, told The Guardian that people living in wealthier countries who don’t eat much dairy might also benefit from adding more milk, cheese, or yogurt to their diet.
Whole-fat dairy products gained their bad rep because they contain high amounts of saturated fat, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level, a risk factor for heart disease.
The extra fat also adds calories to your diet, which may lead to weight gain.
The researchers, though, point out that dairy contains many nutrients that are good for us, including:
- amino acids
- unsaturated fats
- vitamins K-1 and K-2
So focusing only on saturated fats misses these benefits.
However, Dehghan said that moderation is the key — so people who are already eating six to seven servings per day of dairy shouldn’t eat more.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 recommends that adults eat two to three cup equivalents per day of fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
Six ounces of fat-free yogurt is equal to 3/4 cup dairy. One-and-a-half ounces of cheddar is equal to 1 cup dairy.
The guidelines also include fortified soy beverages in this category.
Will this study change guidelines?
Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, said the results of this study have been a bit overblown by the media.
“This study is interesting and intriguing, but I don’t think it’s going to change the way I — or others who are familiar with nutrition — practice,” he said.
In a paper published earlier this year in The American Journal of Medicine, he and his colleagues outline some of the PURE study’s limitations.
One of these is the use of food frequency questionnaires, which require people to recall how often and how much dairy they ate.
Critics say these aren’t an accurate representation of what people eat. The authors of the new study, though, write that they are “rather useful” when comparing groups of people, such as high, medium, and low dairy consumption.
Some health experts are happy to see once-demonized fats welcomed back into the nutritional fold.
“The research is swinging back, showing that having fat in the diet allows people to have a little more satiety — we’re less likely to overeat,” said Angel Planells, MS, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Freeman, though, cautions that you have to look at the overall research, not just one study.
“This study suggests that there may be benefit from dairy, but there are quite a few other studies in recent years that were very well done that suggest that there could be a harm from dairy,” said Freeman.
One of these is a 2014 study from Sweden which found that women who drank three or more glasses of milk a day were 93 percent more likely to die compared with those who drank less than one glass per day. This included higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease.
Other studies have found links between eating more dairy and an increased risk for bone fractures, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer.
“When you look at other research alongside this study, what can you conclude?” said Freeman. “The answer is: I don’t think we can make a firm conclusion.”
To dairy or not to dairy?
So when you walk into the supermarket aisle, should you embrace or skip the dairy section?
“Many concerns have been brought up over the years regarding dairy,” said Freeman. “I would say that it probably still should be limited. And if it’s consumed, it should be eaten in small quantities and ideally lower fat.”
Planells agrees that moderation is the key, but he’s still a fan.
“The nice thing about consuming milk or yogurt is that you’re getting a whole package of nutrients in each serving.”
What about fat content? Planells recommends low-fat milk, but higher-fat Greek yogurt, which helps you feel full and gives you an extra protein boost.
He also recognizes that dairy isn’t for everyone.
“Some people like dairy, some people despise dairy,” said Planells. “For some, not eating dairy is an ethical decision — if you’re a vegan — or maybe you have an allergy.”
For these people, there are others ways to get the nutrition found in milk, as long as they are mindful about getting all the essential nutrients.
Freeman, though, doesn’t see dairy as essential.
“We’re the only species on the planet that actively seeks out and drinks another animal’s mother’s milk,” he said.
He also points to the research done by Dr. Dean Ornish on the benefits of low-fat plant-based whole foods for reversing heart disease: “It still rings true to this day and this is very powerful data.”
But even that nutrition research has its critics.
There are, of course, other ways to know if your diet is working out for you.
Regular check-ups with your doctor to measure things like cholesterol and lipid levels and body-mass index can catch health problems early.
And a big one — how do you feel throughout your day?